V himself had said that team wasnâ€™t very good.
After a 6-8 conference record, State was seeded sixth for the 1987 ACC Tournament in Landover. But somehow â€“ not unlike a few years earlier on an even bigger stage â€“ Jim Valvanoâ€™s Cardiac Pack had survived and advanced to the title game, where they would face top-seeded Carolina, who had steamrolled through the conference to an unblemished 14-0 record. Trailing the Tar Heels 67-66 with only 14 seconds remaining, Vinny Del Negro stepped to the free throw line in the Capital Centre and coolly drained two foul shots for the 68-67 victory.
I wasnâ€™t yet eight years old that Sunday afternoon, but being a State fan had proven bountiful, I decided. In the days and weeks that followed, I relived that scenario countless times on my steep, dogleg-right driveway so typical of the North Carolina foothills, shooting free throws on a goal that measured about 12 feet on the low side while only around nine on the high side.
Iâ€™m much older now, and as Davidson tips off against West Virginia in the first game of the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden, Iâ€™m reticent of the fact that many of the current State students werenâ€™t even alive that afternoon on March 8, 1987, when Del Negro sealed Stateâ€™s tenth ACC title. At that time, we tied Carolina and bested Dukeâ€™s total by three. That title stands still as Stateâ€™s last one, which is even more damnable considering Carolina has since added seven more conference titles, as well as two national titles, while Duke has added nine more conference titles and three national titles. Meanwhile, during the two decades since we last hung a banner, the N.C. State basketball program has stubbornly endured, insufferably, through the indignity of scandal, followed by complete irrelevance, and even still continues its struggle towards recovery.
The real shame of it all is that an entire generation of State fans knows of Jim Valvano only through his legacy. Laugh, think, cry.
Itâ€™s important that even the young generation of State fans understands why Jimmy V was such an endearing â€“ and polarizing â€“ personality for those of us that can never remember being anything but a State fan. But itâ€™s not a romantic history; in fact, itâ€™s quite tragic.
Jimmy V built his legend by winning the most remarkable national title and two ACC titles while at State, but it wasnâ€™t enough to prevent his forced resignation from the team heâ€™d once said he wanted to coach until he died â€“ and tragically, he didnâ€™t miss by much.
To be honest, I donâ€™t completely understand it even now, but I no longer suffer the same naÃ¯vetÃ© as that kid winning championships in his driveway, so by no means would I defend Vâ€™s absolute innocence. After all, under his direction, the athletic department had demonstrated inadequate oversight and had lacked accountability â€“ poor qualities, at best, for a leader. These mistakes werenâ€™t â€“ and arenâ€™t â€“ exclusive to Raleigh. In fact, it took a series of factors to even make it an irrecoverable issue.
Fueled by intense mistrust by the universityâ€™s academic community towards Valvanoâ€™s athletic department, an impossible power struggle had been borne. The consensus among the academics was that Valvanoâ€™s basketball program had become uncontrollable and the university would be far better off without it. To their defense, they had a valid point: Stateâ€™s admissions process for athletes had indeed become comical, considering one of Stateâ€™s primary recruits, Chris Washburn, had scored only a 470 on his SAT, while eight of Valvanoâ€™s recruits over the years had scored under 600.
This strife remained internal, however, until after a vile, poorly written book (which I refuse to even name here, in the fear it would generate curiosity), rife with inaccuracies and egregious, unfounded accusations of corruption within Valvanoâ€™s program triggered both the NCAA investigation and then the independent Poole Commission report that ultimately brought an end to Stateâ€™s national prominence. The four-person Poole Commission investigated the bookâ€™s accusations but uncovered only minor infractions, and ultimately found that Valvanoâ€™s actions had â€œviolated the spirit, but not the letter of the law.â€ However, with the lessons from the scandal at Southern Methodist still fresh, over the next six months a variety of investigations into Valvano were conducted, including one by the North Carolina Attorney Generalâ€™s office.
Yet not one of these investigations unearthed a single academic or financial infraction within the program. Had anything truly damaging been uncovered, State would have undoubtedly faced far more intense sanctions, including a crippling TV ban. But the NCAA had been satisfied with the universityâ€™s internal corrective and punitive actions for the minor violations the Poole Commission had uncovered, which had included tighter restrictions over ticket and shoe distributions to players, limitations of off-campus recruiting visits, Valvanoâ€™s resignation as athletic director, and most crippling, a reduction in scholarships for three years. The NCAA also leveled the maximum two-year probation and barred State from participating in the 1990 NCAA Tournament (at 6-8 in the ACC, we wouldnâ€™t have made it anyway).
At Carolina or Duke, that would have been the end of it. Not a single employee on Valvanoâ€™s staff had been found to have intentionally violated any rules or laws, but Valvano had committed the seemingly-treacherous act of failing to hold those in his charge accountable. He was viewed as a man who had lost institutional control, a most unrecoverable sin in NCAA terms. Valvano wasnâ€™t immediately dismissed, but a vote of confidence by the chancellor was declined. This left an opening for the factor that ultimately brought N.C. Stateâ€™s long reign of national prominence to an end â€“ and not with a bang, but a whimper.
This isnâ€™t a story of any ridiculous Carolina conspiracy or even typical media bias; it was far less impressive. It was nothing beyond irresponsible â€œjournalismâ€ at the areaâ€™s two largest news outlets, which had launched vicious attacks and spewed relentless vitriol upon Valvano using baseless, unmerited facts and personal bias to such an extent that it couldnâ€™t have been anything other than opportunism at its absolute worst. Even Stateâ€™s student newspaper joined the popular character assassination of Jim Valvano, who eventually resigned under intense scrutiny and pressure in April 1990.
I was 11 years old in April 1990 when the era of State basketball during which Iâ€™d grown up, the only one I knew, came to an end. Now what?
V returned to Reynolds one last time on February 21, 1993, for the 10-year commemoration of his Cardiac Packâ€™s 1983 championship, and by then he was dying of metastatic bone cancer. As I watched on TV, a lump moved into my stomach during halftime of that Duke game as he left us with that indelible motto to which every State fan can readily and intimately relate: Donâ€™t give up, donâ€™t ever give up.
Two weeks later at the ESPYs â€“ he was so weak that night that his very close friends, Dick Vitale and Coach K, had to help him on the stairs â€“ he repeated those magnificent words from his Reynolds speech, and theyâ€™ve been preserved for generations to come through replays during the annual Jimmy V Classic on ESPN. The singular part of his ESPY speech that best summed up why he was such a dynamic presence for State fans wasnâ€™t his statement on mind, heart, and soul, but rather a few minutes before, when heâ€™d gone over his allotted time for his speech: “They got that screen up there flashing 30 seconds, like I care about that screen. I got tumors all over my body and I’m worried about some guy in the back going â€˜30 seconds?â€™”
Fifteen years later that still gets me, every time.
I was very young when his tenure at State came to an inappropriate and unceremonious end, but even then I was acutely aware of his legacy. I really wish State was the staple team of the Jimmy V Classic, but the truth is that the RBC Center will house Les Robinson Court before this university officially promotes Jimmy V. I guess you can see that Iâ€™m older and far more cynical now, but Iâ€™m still left searching for answers as to how a man who had once drawn so much ire, all that venom, from so many, could now be revered for offering such a redeeming and lasting message.
Why is it that even now, when I watch his ESPY speech each December â€“ like I am now â€“ Iâ€™m left nostalgic for an era of State basketball that I hardly remember, and even more ironic, an era that bears the ultimate responsibility for having created the darkest years of Stateâ€™s rich basketball heritage?
Maybe Iâ€™m not the right one to adequately answer why Vâ€™s legacy still rings so proudly among us, especially for those of us keenly aware of the ramifications of his indiscriminate oversight while at State. Perhaps itâ€™s quite simply that his message transcends the very essence, the indelible persona, of what it requires to be a State fan: hope.
For the last twenty years, hope has defined us.
After all, itâ€™s all weâ€™ve had.